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Reporter's Notebook: Highlights from the 2007 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association



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Day 1: Thursday January 4, 2007

It's supposed to rain Friday, but Thursday was 65 degrees and beautiful. Hello Atlanta!

The first panels didn't begin until 3pm, so a lot of people arrived in the afternoon. On the train in from the airport (it's a pleasant fifteen minute trip) it seemed as if the cars were packed with historians. Within arm's reach of this reporter the presence of at least five historians was detected almost immediately. One gray-haired historian was busy chatting up a poker game with a graduate student, hoping to entice her to join in the merriment planned for Friday night. "Stakes high?" she asked. "Nickel, dime, quarter," the historian answered. "If you lose $5 that would be a lot." The student didn't seem to need convincing. She was in. The historian (who shall go nameless) expressed his appreciation. It seems that a lot of times it's hard attracting players even though the game was something of a tradition for SHEAR attendees at the AHA. (The games began in 1979.) There just don't seem to be many historians who want to sit around playing poker. The nosy reporter with HNN asked our nameless historian what panels he planned on attending. None was the answer, as if that should have been obvious. Who attends the panels? Conventions are for socializing.

It actually turned out that a lot of people came to attend the panels. Twenty-two were scheduled. Many seemed to have attracted respectable numbers. This was the scene at panel number 16: "Revisiting Black Power: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives."

As might be expected there were a lot of black faces in the audience and on the panel. This was an unusual occurrence. As HNN has noted in the past both the AHA and the OAH conventions usually are nearly all-white (and usually predominantly male). Even the roundtables on reparations have often been predominantly white. This convention has seemed different so far.

The chief theme of the convention is: "Unstable Subjects: Practicing History in Unsettled Times." The topic shows prescience on the part of the program committee. A year and a half ago when the topic was picked only Democrats probably would have readily agreed that we live in unsettled times. Since the November elections both Democrats and Republicans probably share the same outlook, though for different reasons. Where once Republicans had seen great hope in Iraq .... oh well, no need to go into that right now.

One of the unsettling things is that even in these troubled times few Americans seem especially concerned with how we got here. Bad things just seem to have happened. As the high school student said, in answer to the question, "what's history?"--"It's just one dam*d thing after another."

Two of the panels today directly addressed the problem of attracting an audience for history. Michael Grossman, former editor of the American Historical Review, said part of the problem was that historians don't write for a mass audience the way they used to. He admitted it's hard. He's been trying to make his newest book accessible. But his editor keeps telling him, "it's not working." This prompted a complaint from someone in the audience that good writing isn't taught in graduate school. But Jim Banner said it's not something you can probably teach. A great writer like Richard Hofstadter studies past masters and then develops his own style. He didn't write well because he took some class in writing.

By the end of the afternoon all the usual suspects had been rounded up and shot. The problem was that historians aren't writing about subjects the general public finds interesting. Or. The problem was that textbooks turn Americans off to history. Or. Historians don't privilege public history so historians don't write it.

Jim Banner piped up again about this aspect of the problem, noting in exasperation that public historians have not been honored with leadership positions in "this organization." "It's a scandal," he stated passionately, "that Arthur Schlesinger never was a president of the AHA."

The evening was devoted to black music and the presentation of the Fourth Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Award. In keeping with the irony with which this award has been associated, it went this year to Rep. John Lewis, hero of the civil rights struggle. The irony this year is that a black leader was being given an award named in part in honor of Wilson, one of the most racist presidents of the United States. The irony a few years ago was that the AHA, which is known for its liberal membership, gave the award to the one-time KKK member Sen. Robert Byrd. Wilson never apologized for his racism; Byrd of course has. As they say: history is complicated.

Lewis had planned on attending the ceremony in person but because the new Congress got an early start this year he could not. Instead, he delivered a fiery talk via videotape. Some 200 sat and watched:

The evening ended with what AHA President Linda Kerber said was the unprecedented performance of live music on the convention's first day. This was the Wendell Phillips Whalum Community Chorus:

Day 2: Friday January 5, 2007

Today it rained. Crossing between the Hilton and the Marriott was treacherous at times. Making matters worse, a local cop stopped people from crossing in the middle of the street even though that's where the entrances to both hotels are. Laboriously we had to walk to the corner and wait for the light in the rain. One historian who tried a mad dash through the empty street got yelled at. "Hey, didn't you hear me," said the cop. "I said to walk at the corner." He was only doing his job. But the determination with which he protected us from ourselves went mostly unappreciated.

The day ended with the traditional handing out of awards and prizes. AHA President Linda Kerber delivered her presidential address:"The Stateless as the Citizen's Other."

Earlier there were trips to the countryside, socializing and oh, yes, attendance at the scholarly panels. Only a few panels drew sizeable crowds. None featured large audiences. And at least one was an out and out failure when three of the four panelists didn't show. (You know who you are!) Over at the Westin something went haywire at the panel on teaching history through fiction. The lights kept going out plunging the room into darkness several times during one panelist's presentation. She gamely pressed on and at the end of her talk received a loud round of applause.

Attendance at the Atlanta convention is lower than at last year's Philadelphia meeting. But the bigger cities always attract bigger crowds. The AHA estimates that by Sunday about 5,000 will have registered for the convention; Philadelphia had about 5800.

And just what was it like today? We roamed around to give you a feel. See if you can spot David Brion Davis, one of the winners (with Fritz Stern and Lloyd Gardner) of the AHA's senior scholars' award. (Hint: He's signing a festschrift being published this month in his honor.)

In the morning one of the stellar sessions featured a talk by Marilyn Zoidis, the former curator of the Smithsonian's multimillion dollar Star-Spangled Banner exhibit (this is the one that will feature the famous War of 1812 flag when the Museum of American History reopens in 2008). Zoidis's topic: "The American Flag Is Not Just a Simple Statement of Patriotism."

At noon most people hurried off to lunch. But about 100 stayed behind to attend a panel about the future of the AHA. It was one of the liveliest of the day. Past AHA President William H. Chafe opened the forum with a summary of the AHA's problems, one of which is a lack of racial diversity. Frequently, he turned to the AHA's Robert Townsend for facts and figures. At one point Townsend noted that that the AHA is less representative of minorities than the last Republican convention. This drew a gasp from the audience.

In the afternoon the panel drawing one of the most passionate crowds dealt with the topic of truth commissions. Kate Doyle of the National Security Archive, stepping in at the last moment to replace Greg Grandin, reviewed the history of the first Guatemala truth commission (a second one has now been proposed). The numbers she related are astonishing. After collecting the testimonies of some 8,000 people, the commission concluded that there had been more than 600 massacres of civilians during the war against the left-wing insurgency. The military was implicated in 93 percent of the human rights violations. The military of course refused to cooperate with the commission. Much of the evidence that was used was based on 25,000 documents the National Security Archive compiled from American records using the Freedom of Information Act.

Trudy Peterson, former acting archivist of the United States and president of the Society of American Archivists, delivered the next paper. She's been investigating what happens to the archives of truth commissions. It turns out many are either lost or neglected. She explained what the one factor is that is common to the countries that preserve their records.

Day 3: Saturday January 6, 2007

It was a day of news.

The morning brought word that one of the lifetime members of the AHA attending the annual convention had been arrested and tossed in jail for jaywalking.

Felip Fernandez-Armesto detained by Atlanta police for jaywalking Jan. 4, 2007.  Picture by Jonathan Dresner.

On Thursday, just after noon, the Tufts historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto was arrested by Atlanta police as he crossed the middle of the street between the Hilton and Hyatt hotels. After being thrown on the ground and handcuffed, the former Oxford don was formally arrested, his hands cuffed behind his back. Several policemen pressed hard on his neck and chest, leaving the mild-mannered scholar, who's never gotten so much as a parking ticket, bruised and in pain. He was then taken to the city detention center along with other accused felons and thrown into a filthy jail cell filled with prisoners. He remained incarcerated for eight hours. Officials demanded bail of over a thousand dollars. To come up up with the money Fernandez-Armesto, the author of nineteen books, had to make an arrangement with a bail bondsman. In court even the prosecutors seemed embarrassed by the incident, which got out of hand when Fernandez-Armesto requested to see the policeman's identification (the policeman was wearing a bomber jacket; to Fernandez-Armesto, a foreigner unfamiliar with American culture, the officer did not look like an officer). The prosecutors asked the professor to plead nolo contendere. He refused, concerned that the stain on his record might put his green card status in jeopardy. Officials finally agreed to drop all charges. The judge expressed his approval. The professor says he has no plans to sue. But the AHA council is considering lodging a complaint with the city.

Professor Fernandez-Armesto provided HNN with a riveting account of his day in an Atlanta jail. We have broken the interview into several parts to make the download quicker.

Update 1/8/07 In response to the news that Atlanta police had arrested Fernandez-Armesto for jaywalking, the AHA council decided to send a letter of protest to local officials who had helped stage the convention with the understanding that the AHA's concerns would be passed along to the appropriate city authorities.

(Click here to post a comment on the controversy.)

Click here for Part 2. Click here for Part 3.

On the days after the professor's ordeal, the Atlanta police were continuing to stop historians from jaywalking. Anybody caught crossing the street against the light was reprimanded. Many were asked to produce their driver's license. But police did not arrest anybody. Some historians were mildly amused by the attentiveness of the police to the crime of jaywalking.

HAW members at the AHA Friday Jan. 5, 2007.Late in the afternoon the AHA made history. At the annual Business Meeting, a proceeding usually featuring dry reports by the organization's leaders, the members approved an anti-war resolution, the first in the AHA's existence. The voice vote at the packed meeting was nearly unanimous. It was sponsored by Historians Against the War. The meeting also approved a measure putting the AHA on record against the use of "free speech zones." A third resolution urged the AHA council to consider subscribing to a pro-labor service that tracks developments in the hotel and convention industry. All of the measures must be approved by the council before they are considered the official policy of the AHA.

This is the text of the anti-war resolution:

Whereas the American Historical Association’s Professional Standards emphasize the importance of open inquiry to the pursuit of historical knowledge;

Whereas the American Historical Association adopted a resolution in January 2004 re-affirming the principles of free speech, open debate of foreign policy, and open access to government records in furthering the work of the historical profession;

Whereas during the war in Iraq and the so-called war on terror, the current Administration has violated the above-mentioned standards and principles through the following practices:

  • excluding well-recognized foreign scholars;
  • condemning as “revisionism” the search for truth about pre-war intelligence;
  • re-classifying previously unclassified government documents;
  • suspending in certain cases the centuries-old writ of habeas corpus and substituting indefinite administrative detention without specified criminal charges or access to a court of law;
  • using interrogation techniques at Guantanamo, Abu-Ghraib, Bagram, and other locations incompatible with respect for the dignity of all persons required by a civilized society;

Whereas a free society and the unfettered intellectual inquiry essential to the practice of historical research, writing, and teaching are imperiled by the prctices described above; and

Whereas, the foregoing practives are inextricably linked to the war in which the United States is presently engaged in Iraq; now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That the American Historical Association urges its members through publication of this resolution in Perspectives and other appropriate outlets:

1. To take a public stand as citizens on behalf of the values necessary to the practice of our profession; and
2. To do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion.

One of the first people to speak in favor of the anti-war resolution was Staughton Lynd, who had battled at the 1969 AHA convention for a resolution opposing the Vietnam War. It famously lost. Lynd took pains to point out that the 1969 resolution was far more radical than the current one.

The anti-war vote took place after a heated debate that lasted an hour. A motion to drop a clause urging historians to "do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion" was easily defeated. But the debate was vigorous.

The text of the resolution was crafted to emphasize "practices inimical to the values of the historical profession" in an attempt to win over the members worried that the organization might be accused of meddling in areas outside the usual purview of a professional society. But no one denied the resolution was frankly anti-war. And everybody who spoke, including those who opposed the resolution, made clear that they opposed the war, including Stanford historian James Sheehan, featured first in the video below.


The meeting's tough line on Iraq was not matched by the action taken on the other two resolutions which came before the group. The members rejected a strong resolution opposing the use of university-approved speech codes. A compromise resolution narrowly written to oppose only free speech zones was unanimously approved. David Beito, one of the sponsors of the strong measure, gloomily told HNN afterward the passage of the compromise resolution against speech zones was a real defeat. (Update 1/9/07 Click here for video and details on the speech code debate. )

The meeting also rejected a resolution that would have required the AHA council to subscribe to the Informed Meetings Exchange (INMEX), which is closely associated with the pro-labor group behind the recent wave of hotel strikes. A second compromise resolution merely urged the council to consider subscribing to the service.

The meeting ended with the traditional passing of the gavel from incumbent Linda Kerber to the new president of the AHA: Barbara Weinstein.

Day 4: Sunday January 7, 2007

Sunday everybody went home, but not before hundreds of historians attended fifty-six panels scheduled from eight thirty in the morning until one in the afternoon. (One proposal under study at the AHA is to do away entirely with Sunday panels, though this would conflict with the goal of adding panels to the conventions in order to make the annual meetings more appealing to a broader range of people.)

HNN shot video of two of the panels. Over at the Marriott there was a panel on "Interrogation, Imprisonment and American Empire." Rebecca M. Lemov (Harvard) delivered a paper titled, " 'I Had Become Another Person': Mind Control and the Birth of Soft Torture in America." Here are some clips from the talk, which demonstrated the links between government-sponsored social science research into mind control in the 1950s and the practices of "soft torture" used at Guantanamo currently.

Meanwhile, over at the Hilton historians were debating the ways they should handle controversies that pop up in the teaching and presentation of history at schools and museums. The session was titled, "Practicing History, Contending with Controversy: Public Historians and Academic Historians on Our Work, Early Twenty-First Century."

And then the convention ended. In all nearly 4800 historians had attended more than 200 panels.